How Soul Food Shapes Our Identity and Health
“It’s okay to make changes to our beloved culinary tradition so that we can lead longer, healthier lives.”
From black-eyed peas to collard greens, just mentioning soul food conjures up images of family dinners and fun times. But the dishes we love carry a meaning that goes far beyond a full belly. Soul Food Junkies, a film directed by Byron Hurt, explores the complex history of black people’s favorite food, from how it shapes our cultural identity to the impact it has on our health. The documentary is set to screen in Philadelphia on August 5th, as part of the first annual BlackStar Film Festival, which will run August 2nd through 5th at venues around the city. We sat down with Hurt to discuss why we’re so in love with soul food, how what we eat affects our progress as a race, and ways to nurture healthy eating habits in our children.
Loop21: Let’s start with a history lesson: How did what we think of as black soul food come to be?
Byron Hurt: The culinary tradition commonly known today as soul food has its origins in West Africa prior to the transatlantic slave trade. Enslaved Africans, torn from their homelands, brought foods like okra and yams with them, as well as their cooking techniques and traditions. When Africans from the Senegambia region reached the Americas, they adapted to the foods, fruits and vegetables that were available to them and turned them into a black culinary tradition. It is believed that black southern food was coined “soul food” in the late 1960s to early 1970s during the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Arts movements.
Loop21: Why does soul food still play an important role in our lives?
Hurt: Soul food is a part of our cultural legacy, a stamp that we have placed on our world. We are emotionally connected to the food we grew up on that our mothers and grandmothers (and fathers and grandfathers) prepared for us. More often than not, soul food, or some variation of it, will be present at any large social event or gathering where large numbers of black people are present, such as church picnics, barbecues and fish fries, family reunions and tailgate parties at HBCU football games. As a culture, we have an affinity for soul food because it is a defining part of who we are as a race. It has sustained us through very difficult times, and when cooked well, it tastes very, very good!
Loop21: How do the foods we eat shape our sense of identity as a race?
Hurt: Every culture and ethnic background has a cuisine that defines or shapes their identity as a race. Soul food is ours. In essence, black people created soul food. We made something out of nothing with a pinch of this and a pinch of that. So there exists a sense of cultural and racial pride in creating something that has sustained our families and communities for generations.
Loop21: How does it affect our collective health?
Hurt: It all depends on how soul food is prepared. Generally speaking, traditional soul food cuisine is not an unhealthy cuisine. Vegetables like collard greens, kale, spinach and other leafy greens are actually very healthy for you. Yams and sweet potatoes are very good for you. But if you overcook them and load them with saturated fats and sugar, you lose the nutritional value and increase the calorie and fat count. If you use fatty meats and lots of salt to season greens, then they are not so healthy for you. I would imagine that goes for any cuisine. Overall, black people’s collective health is affected by many factors, including our diet. We have a disproportionate number of people in our communities with high blood sugar, Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, cancer and obesity, and a lot of those diseases could be prevented if we modified our diets and exercised more.
Loop21: What is your number one tip for teaching our children healthy eating habits that respect our culture?
Hurt: My number one tip is to teach small children how to identify and appreciate green vegetables and fresh fruit. In my opinion, that’s a really good starting point for children. When I go shopping at the supermarket, I shop in the outside aisles of the market. That’s where the fruits and vegetables are located. I quiz my daughter on what each fruit and vegetable is, so that she knows how to identify them. My wife and I make our daughter kale smoothies, baked fish, sweet potatoes, and avocado sandwiches, and we give her fresh fruit to eat for snacks, like apple and orange slices. We give her treats like cookies, cake and lollipops, too, but only occasionally. We also cook whole grains like quinoa and brown rice, and legumes like red beans and lentils. When we cook collard greens, we don’t use fatty meats or overcook them. Many of these foods come right out of the African and black southern tradition.
Loop21: How does the lack of access to healthy food in urban neighborhoods affect our progress?
Hurt: I think the lack of access to healthy foods affects our progress in a lot of ways. Children do not have the proper nutrition to function well and excel in school. Many educators suggest that behavioral problems among students are related to poor diets. We suffer from way too many preventable diseases because we are consuming far too many inexpensive processed foods, and we end up paying upwards of thousands of dollars yearly in health care costs on medicines and treatment. So, in the short term, unhealthy soul food, fast food, and other processed foods may be less expensive, but in the long run, we pay a high price for our health. Poor health and nutrition-related diseases cut our life span and quality of life, and impact us economically, both personally and as a community.
Loop21: What is one step our readers can take today to help tackle that problem?
Hurt: One step your readers can make today is to replace your sugar sweetened beverages with a tall glass of cold water.
Loop21: What was the most surprising thing you learned while making this documentary?
Hurt: The most surprising thing that I learned is how deep the resentment and the divide is between people who eat unhealthy diets, and people who eat healthy diets. People who have unhealthy eating habits feel judged and looked down upon by people who eat healthy food, and people who eat very healthy are often seen as food police, health nuts and snobs by people who eat poorly.
Loop21: What do you hope readers will learn from your film?
Hurt: I hope people will learn that soul food has a deep, complex, and rich history. It served us well during slavery and very difficult times throughout our history, and I want them to learn that it is okay to make changes to our beloved culinary tradition so that we can lead longer, healthier lives. We can maintain our beloved cuisine if we simply make modifications in the preparation of our foods. We don't have to throw out the baby with the bathwater.
What’s your favorite soul food dish? How could you make it healthier?